A Newborn Kitten, 12 Steps, and One Night of Fatherhood

When I put him in his makeshift little crib I had the first of several revelations that night: “When you were using you probably would have let that kitten die.” At that moment I fully embraced the experience.

A Newborn Kitten, 12 Steps, and One Night of Fatherhood

When I put him in his makeshift little crib I had the first of several revelations that night: “When you were using you probably would have let that kitten die.” At that moment I fully embraced the experience.

As a product of too many 12-step meetings to count in my multi-decade fight with three addictions, many themes stream through my inner recovery. One recurring theme that is anchored in that addiction library is the seminal moment when a fellow brother shares their impending fatherhood as a monumental reason for getting sober. Having been denied the opportunity of fatherhood myself (through the trifecta of alcohol, gambling, smoking), I secretly envied those who could use parenthood as an inspiration for getting clean.

Rightfully so! What could be a more powerful reason for getting clean than wanting to be present physically and spiritually during perhaps the most important time in your life? Especially when most of us enter adulthood as wounded children with no modern-day guide to change that reality. Consequently, parents need every vicissitude of human awareness to help their partners raise a child in as stable a way as possible. The idea of getting a fresh start and having an AA or GA baby is uber-logical to even the most helpless addict.

However, even the strong evolutionary pull in our chromosomes for parenthood is sometimes no match for the intense psychological and physical demons that obfuscate our nature when addiction has hijacked our soul. Since I was never in a position to experience fatherhood, I could only postulate from the ill-formed axons, dendrites, synapses in a substance abuser’s brain that the conscious mind desperately wants to rise to the occasion, but the unconscious is probably already working out the details of its next encounter with dopamine.

Fortunately, I have seen many addicts seamlessly climb out of the abyss and become great parents. There are a small minority who work on a quick timeline and apparently “will” themselves to sobriety, leaving the rest of us marveling at how easy they make it look. These are what I call the “one and done group.”

The rest of us have to get well in small increments. If we are sincere about our recovery, we need to rehab for as long as it takes to get a reasonable modicum of sobriety. Detox, if needed, happens quickly, but it’s the ability to handle environmental cues that is the 800-pound gorilla. That learned process can take years to build adequate defenses to handle cravings. The good news is no matter what threshold you’re at, just the contemplation of getting clean for parenthood’s sake is huge.

Most of my adult life I was in self-destruct mode and the insanity of it all was that I was conscious of it, but if anyone tried to stop me, I would hit the jettison button sooner rather than later. Even though when I was high, I often wished that a stork would knock at my door and a wife and a child would magically appear, I knew deep down that I was not equipped for fatherhood at that time and it would have been an unmitigated disaster.

Fast forward many years and today at 58 I have been clean of all the aforementioned vices “for many a 24 hour” as they say in 12-step parlance. It took many years but fortunately I stopped just short of the triple-crown (insanity, prison and death). I was a very slow learner.

When I look back at my state of entropy, what bothers me the most was how selfish I was. If I saw a person who needed help or a good friend needed a ride to a doctor’s appointment I would give them a half-baked excuse. The only time I did something for others was if it furthered my self-interest. Today I cringe just thinking about how I let so many people down (including myself). I was oblivious to the world that existed outside my addictions.

Today I feel like I am one with the universe. Whether it is an injured bird or counseling work with addicts, I am grateful that my desire to help people has been restored to what I feel is my purpose in life. I try to put forth a reparative approach to all organisms in the universe whether animals or humans (I draw the line with candida in my gut). However, my one big regret which I am patiently learning to accept is that I will never be a father. But that all changed a couple of weeks ago. I experienced one night of fatherhood that only could have happened if I was clean and sober. Ironically, the experience left me higher than a kite!

My Fatherhood Tripalogue

We are all guilty of talking the talk and not walking the walk at times. It is especially true of writers/addicts like myself who are sometimes guilty of “pontification by proxy,” whereby we sit on our cozy perch and lecture about things we may not have experienced, but we have book or third party knowledge of. While I have street and book credentials about addiction, I have never been a father. But after 58 years on this planet, sooner or later you’re apt to experience a temporary role as a father, even if the source of your caretaking is a kitten. And this kitten was especially dicey because it was only four ounces.

About 6 p.m. one day last week I was returning from the grocery store, looking forward to putting on the baseball game and relaxing. As I walked up the three wooden steps to my front door, I heard this faint whine and between the wood steps was what looked like a small baby stuffed animal, the size of a potato. Wait a minute, I thought, stuffed animals do not make sounds unless you wind them up. This rocket scientist then realized it was a newborn kitten. Wonderful, I thought as I picked it up gently. I know as much about newborn kittens as I do about opera.

My first response was I wanted to bolt, like the first time I went to AA and wished I was in the witness protection plan and was relocated to Siberia, but sanity prevailed and I assessed the situation.

I realized that the kitten was no more than a few hours old. Not only was it not of my species, but now we’re talking about neonatal care of a kitten. Now Mr. Bigshot, purveyor of love, a Holden Caulfield wannabe was thrust in the middle of a conundrum: do I take care of the cat or watch the ballgame? Thankfully, since getting sober I’ve learned not to trust my first instinct.

I thought of a compromise: I will pass the kitten off to all those cat lovers I know! But my sudden relief didn’t last as all of those ubiquitous cat lovers were not calling me back. A neighbor passing by told me to go get kitten milk and wait several hours for the mother to come back.

Guilty thoughts permeated: “well that’s what I get for not going to enough meetings or maybe because I lied about jury duty or some other white fib, the gods were punishing me.” I stood in the open doorway waiting and watching for what seemed like an eternity for the mother to come back. (I was feeding it special kitten milk and put a light knitted blanket on it and picked it up every 15 minutes.) I then had a horrible thought: the nocturnal raccoons would probably eat it.

Right then and there I drew a line in the sand and said to myself “that ain’t happening on my watch.” I picked the little guy up (I did not know the gender) and brought him inside and realized that at least for that night I was going to be his father and mother. When I put him in his makeshift little crib I had the first of several revelations that night: when you were using you probably would have let that kitten die. At that moment I fully embraced the experience.

After giving him a couple of drops of milk (not as easy as it seems—I managed to get more on the little guy’s cheeks and neck then in his tiny mouth), I figured the cat and I would have a long snooze. No such luck, 10 minutes later he was crying. I petted him for a bit and got back into my crib. A cat person friend finally called and said “it is 50/50 whether he will survive the night without his mother.” Once again I said chauvinistically “that ain’t happening on my watch.”

“Just hold him as much as you can,” she said. Realization #2 then crept into my brain: Whether you like it or not, you are going to have to be a surrogate parent for the night. Incredulous as this sounds, I said to myself, “here is your shot at fatherhood.”

As the night drew on, I would pick him up for 10 minutes then put him down and he would cry, and just by hearing my utterance “it is all right little friend,” he would sleep for about 20 minutes. (Once I learned that kittens can’t hear or see for a week after birth, I realized my talking was a placebo for me; it calmed me down and maybe my little buddy sensed that and also relaxed). After holding him for another 10 minutes, I realized I was too nervous to sleep and at about 3 a.m. I took him with a towel and small knitted blanket and put him on my chest. He only cried three brief times after that. I think the little guy probably thought I was his feline mother because he positioned his body right over my heart. 

It is incredible: these little guys do not have working ears, eyes, legs at birth and their thermostats are very nebulous. No wonder my cat friend gave him a 50 percent shot of making it through the night!

When light befell this newly anointed kitten kennel, I realized I was responsible for the kitten’s life. Eye-opener #3: I might have saved him from the raccoons that night, but most importantly, his welfare was in my hands and I knew I had to get him some professional help.

As soon as 8 a.m. rolled around, I went to the local vet and lucky for me, the newbie, they said they would take care of him and find a home for him. I felt relieved, but then epiphany #4 hit me like a load of bricks: I realized I would miss this itsy bitsy bundle of joy.

Before my deep seated abandonment issues kicked in, out of nowhere a warm sense of calmness pervaded my being. Vision #5: I was “high.” For the last 10 hours my ego went into some sort of dissolution…I was tripping, like a psychedelic high — my sense of well-being was no longer about me, my whole apparatus shifted to the care for a four ounce cat.

That is about as stoked up as I ever felt in recovery.


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